KATHMANDU: Nepal’s supreme court has ordered a probe into whether the centuries-old practice of worshipping a ‘living goddess’ violates the rights of young girls, court officials said yesterday.
The Nepalese tradition involves pre-pubescent girls from the Shakya caste of the Newari community undergoing rigorous tantric rituals to be designated as a Kumari, or a living Hindu virgin goddess, until puberty is reached.
The chosen girl is then whisked away for a new life in a temple – missing out on normal life and allowed only limited contact with family members.
There are several Kumaris in the impoverished Himalayan kingdom, although the best known is the royal Kumari – who lives near Kathmandu’s temple-studded Basantapur Durbar Square and blesses the king during the annual Indrajatra festival.
Although Shakya families living in Kathmandu see it as an honour to have their child chosen as a goddess, some human rights activists have complained that the girls are essentially deprived of any childhood.
Supreme court spokesman Ram Krishna Timilsena said that the court had ordered the culture ministry to “establish a committee and prepare a report within three months to look into the alleged rights abuses and exploitation of girls”.
He said the court would give its final verdict after studying the report.
The order follows a petition filed last year by lawyer Pundevi Maharjan, who argued the tradition was a violation of individual freedom.
In her writ, Maharjan argued that the tradition “curtails girls’ rights to individual freedom including education, health, sports, entertainment and privacy”.
“Such restrictions will have a physical and psychological effect on the girl,” she said.
A government official said a thorough investigation would be initiated to bring changes to the Kumari tradition, but signalled that an end to the practice was unlikely.
“The living standards of Kumari girls have improved over the past few years. Although they can’t get all the facilities that a normal girl enjoys, they do get a personal tutor for education,” said Hemraj Subedi, an administrator at the government trust fund that looks after the welfare of Kumaris.
Subedi said all former Kumaris were provided with a monthly pension of Rs6,000 ($80).
Cultural expert Satya Mohan Joshi said some reforms were needed to ensure the rights of girls living as Kumaris, but he argued the tradition should be maintained to preserve Nepal’s cultural identity.
“As they have to live a normal life once they retire, they should not be deprived of the facilities one enjoys during childhood,” said Joshi, chancellor of Nepal Bhasha Academy, a group working to preserve and promote Newari cultural heritage in the capital.
“A Kumari girl cannot be compared with the normal girl. She is believed to have a divine power,” he said.